World Environment Day: Fear looms large in this ‘cancer village’
Just 3 km from Aonla town in Bareilly district, and a little over 300km from the state capital, on Ramnagar road, lies a hamlet called Bhooripur. To a passerby, it may seem like any other village, but to locals, it is ‘cancer wala gaon’. Some even call the settlement ‘shrapit’ or cursed village.
The reason: Bhooripur, with 225 families, has seen around 30 deaths from cancer in the last decade, out of which, 10 deaths occurred in 2012 alone. The residents blame contaminated water for their woes and live in perpetual fear, not knowing who would be the next victim of the deadly disease.
Experts have cited the possibility of chemical pollutants as the reason behind the spread of cancer in this area while the chief medical officer (CMO) Bareilly, Vineet Shukla, said, “I will form a team to collect water samples from the village and check the cause of cancer spreading in the area.”
“Cancer cases are frequent in our village. While on record there are 30 deaths, the actual number must be higher. There are many who don’t treat the ailment seriously, due to illiteracy or lack of awareness about the disease. In the past three years, eight deaths have been reported,” said former village head Badaam Singh.
He said at present there were three villagers suffering from cancer. “Of these, the condition of Vidya Devi, 62, is critical,” he said.
Vidya’s daughter-in-law Mala said, “Around two years ago, she complained of severe stomach ache. We rushed her to a doctor, who diagnosed kidney stones. But we knew it was much beyond that. She had lumps in her stomach.” Mala said they had to sell off a big part of their ancestral land for Vidya’s treatment.
“It’s not so much the disease, but poverty that is taking lives here,” she said. “The moneyed people manage to stay alive longer. But those without means easily succumb to the illness,” she added while waving a hand-held fan to make her bed-ridden mother-in-law feel better.
Badaam Singh said that 2012 was the deadliest year. “In one year, over 10 people lost their lives. Satya Pal, a good friend of mine who was just 25 years old at that time, also died. I still have his medical reports and scans with me,” he said.
Birender, Satya Pal’s elder brother, said, “I couldn’t save my brother despite all efforts. In 2011, Satya complained of stomach ache. We went to the primary health centre, where doctors gave him some pain killers, but it didn’t help,” he recollected.
He said the family then took him to hospitals in Bareilly, where he was diagnosed with cancer in the abdomen and referred to the Sanjay Gandhi Postgraduate Institute of Medical Sciences in Lucknow. “On May 7, 2012, we took him for his ultrasound. Within two days he was dead,” said Birender.
Another cancer death around the same time was that of Dularo devi -- mother of four and wife of a primary school teacher. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer. “I was the only breadwinner in our joint family of 11 members. We didn’t have the money to save her life,” said Dularo’s husband Dhan Singh.
The villagers say it is contaminated water that is causing the disease to spread. “It’s the water that is to blame,” said Baburam, a villager in his early 70s.
“The area has around a dozen hand pumps, but the water is of such bad quality that it turns pale yellow within 30 minutes,” he said. “The water table here is at a depth of 100 feet. We believe a deeper boring could be the way out, but the poor villagers don’t have enough money to afford that,” he added.
“Ab to Ishwar hi jane ki ye ghatak silsila kab rukega. Sarkari adhikariyon ko kuchh karna chahiya (Only God knows when this deadly sequence of death will stop. Government officials should do something),” said the septuagenarian.
Meanwhile, experts have cited the possibility of chemical pollutants as the reason behind the spread of cancer in this area. “Chemical pollutants are absorbed by the body and then affect blood cells, causing cancer. Presence of heavy metals (zinc, arsenic, cadmium, etc) in excess in soil also impacts the metabolism rate and can lead to cancer,” said Dr AP Singh, head of the department of environment science at Bareilly College.
He said the amount of heavy metals in soil could vary from region to region and pollute the water table. “The government should take concrete measures to curb pollution,” he said.
Villagers said a team of officials from pollution control, water and health departments visited the area in 2013 and collected water and soil samples for testing.
“But none of the officials returned to tell us about the laboratory test result. We still don’t know the reason. Also, no action was initiated by the government,” complained a villager.
When contacted, chief medical officer (CMO) Bareilly, Vineet Shukla, said, “I was unaware of the exercise the health department undertook. But now that I am being told about it, I will form a team to collect fresh water samples from the village and check the cause of cancer spreading in the area.”